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Emotion as a Source of Knowledge in Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy”

In many ways, the Romanticism of the Victorian period was a response to the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers were intensely focused on reason as a means of improving the world and lifting humanity to a new and better existence. Romantic thinkers reacted by highlighting the importance of emotion and intuition in understanding reality. In “Ode on Melancholy,” John Keats expresses the Romantic value of emotion as a source of real knowledge, using allusion and imagery to present melancholy as a natural part of existence that offers knowledge of beauty and life through sensory experience.

In the first stanza, Keats introduces several allusions to death, emphasizing the potentially fatal aspect of melancholy:

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul. [1]

Keats urges the reader to avoid fatal elements such as “Wolf’s-bane” and “nightshade” which are known for their toxicity, and “yew-berries” which were used by the ancients for suicide. Similar warnings follow regarding the “death-moth” which resembles a human skull, and the “beetle”—an image often placed in Egyptian tombs. Following suit with these death-related symbols, the admonition against the “ruby grape of Proserpine” relies on underworld imagery. According to Roman mythology, Proserpine was captured by the god of the underworld and eventually rescued. As a result of eating pomegranate seeds—her “ruby grape”—while in the underworld, Proserpine was forced to return for several months each year. The months she spends in the underworld are associated with winter, and her return is associated with spring and harvest. Like the warnings regarding Wolf’s-bane, nightshade, yewberries, and the death moth earlier in the stanza, the admonition not to “suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d / By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine” implies caution against that which is toxic, as if the kiss of nightshade would essentially be the kiss of death, like the fateful seeds eaten by Proserpine.[2]

Though all these images of death may initially appear to characterize melancholy as primarily fatal, Keats ultimately incorporates them into a picture of melancholy as a natural and necessary part of existence. Though many of these symbols are related to death, most actually suggest a duality between life and death. In this duality, reality is in cyclical motion, always moving back and forth between life and death. Both wolf’s-bane and nightshade, though known to be toxic in large quantities, were also used for medicinal purposes. Likewise, the beetle was not exclusively a symbol of death for the ancient Egyptians, but was also associated with the sun god, and with rebirth and renewal. The story of Proserpine also suggests a cyclical view of nature, in which seasons of death are always followed by seasons of life. This cyclical picture is supported by the notion that “shade to shade will come too drowsily,”[3] if “shade to shade” is understood as night to night—the perpetual rising and setting of the sun. For Keats, melancholy has a rightful and natural place within this cyclical picture of life. Though melancholy is inevitable, it ought not be a fixed state, but rather a temporary one that is always giving way to life.

In the second stanza, Keats reinforces this cyclical view of reality using natural imagery to characterize the experience of melancholy as sorrowful, yet beautiful and life-giving:

But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.[4]

The undeniable sorrow and dreariness of melancholy are identified in the image of melancholy as rain from “a weeping cloud,” and explicitly referenced in the command to “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.” While certain images in the stanza are dreary, taken as a whole it supports the notion that melancholy is life-giving. Melancholy is depicted as a rain shower that “fosters the droop-headed flowers all.” Like the rain, melancholy stimulates life, growth, and beauty. The flowers are “droop-headed,” as if the rain has beaten them down, yet without that rain the flowers will die. The “morning rose” and the “globed peonies” are pictures of new life; “globed” implies that the peonies are budding and have yet to fully bloom. The image of the “salt sand-wave” is reminiscent of the continual crashing of waves upon the shore, reinforcing the cyclical picture of nature woven throughout the first stanza. The command to “glut thy sorrow” on the rose, the wave, or the peony suggests a flooding or inundation of water upon the flowers, or into the wave to be incorporated into the vast oceans. In the same way, melancholy is somehow incorporated into beauty as a life giving force. Finally, the command to “feed deep” upon the “peerless eyes” of the mysterious “mistress” (presumably melancholy) hints at the presence of deep and unrivaled beauty. The summation of all these images creates a picture of melancholy as more than just a natural phase in the cycle of life: melancholy is both assuaged by beauty, and is a vital source of the nourishment of beauty.[5]

In the third and final stanza, Keats introduces the idea that the experience of melancholy relies on the senses and is known by a select few:

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;

His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Melancholy is personified as a goddess seated upon her “sovran shrine” only accessible to a select few. She is “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape.” According to this picture, melancholy exists in a realm that not all people have the strength or perseverance to access. Spatially, melancholy is presented as something always inner, veiled, or hidden. Her shrine is within “the very temple of Delight.” Similarly, in order to see her, one must “burst Joy’s grape;” in other words, one must break through to an inner layer. The notion that melancholy is to be “seen” and “tasted” reveals it to be an experiential phenomenon. One cannot know about melancholy through reason or abstraction, but only through personal, almost sensory experience.[6]

Because melancholy is deeply life-giving and fosters beauty, those who taste and see melancholy can understand and perceive beauty in a way that is unattainable for others. Keats writes, “She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die.”[7] In keeping with the cyclical nature of reality, beauty must fade for a time: beauty inevitably dies again and again in melancholy, but is always rebirthed. Joy and pleasure must give way to melancholy for a time so that its vital force might take hold and produce life. Though the connection between melancholy and beauty is rather mysterious and far from explicit, Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” ultimately paints it as strong, deep, and mutually vital. It is primarily through this intrinsic connection to beauty that the emotion of melancholy offers an experiential knowledge of reality that is indiscoverable through reason and abstraction alone.

 


[1] John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy,” lines 1-10.
[2] Keats, “Ode on Melancholy,” 2-4.
[10] Ibid., 9.
[11] Ibid., 11-20.
[12] Ibid., 12-18.
[22] Ibid., 26-29.
[28] Ibid., 21.